Thursday, February 28, 2019

The 1884 Western Union Building - 186 Fifth Avenue



The ground floor is undergoing renovation in 2019.

Founded in 1851 The New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company immediately began gobbling up other financial services and communications firms.  When it laid plans to extend telegraphic wires from the East to the West Coast, it changed its name to the Western Union Telegraph Company in 1856.  It completed the first transcontinental telegraph line--the wires fabricated in iron--on October 24, 1861.   Two days later the Government ceased operation of the Pony Express service.  Individual users no doubt thought hard before using the cutting edge technology, though.  Sending a telegram coast-to-coast could coast as much as $20--about $575 today.

The Western Union Telegraph Company continued its aggressive policy of acquiring competitive firms and by 1884 it had absorbed 500 telegraph companies nationwide.

Western Union was also zealously building in New York City.  In addition to its massive headquarters building at No. 145 Broadway, designed by George B. Post, there were more than 130 branch buildings throughout the city.  Two of them were completed in 1884--one on Broad Street and the other at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and West 23rd Street.  


Completed in 1873, The Western Union headquarters sat downtown at Broadway and Dey Street.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, June 25, 1898 (copyright expired)  

The uptown building, with the addresses of No. 186 Fifth Avenue and No. 10 West 23rd Street, was designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh, who had just recently designed the Dakota Apartments on Central Park West.  

Hardenbergh turned to the currently popular Queen Anne style for the Western Union Telegraph Company building.  Seven stories high, including the peaked roof punctured by story-high dormers, it was faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone and terra cotta.  Hardenberg's treatment of the two-story base was highly unusual.  Its highly-unusual Fifth Avenue elevation included a protruding show window nestled within slightly recessed storefront, and a metal-framed oriel within a gaping arch on the second floor.  Two-story arches along 23rd Street were separated by brick-and-stone piers.


Valentine's Manual of New York City (copyright expired)
Hardenberg embellished what was other a somewhat reserved structure with elaborate terra cotta and stone decorations.  Elaborate panels decorated the third and sixth floor piers, terra cotta Queen Anne-style motifs adorned the frieze below the cornice and filled the pediments of the dormers.  Most striking was the panel above the 23rd Street entrance.  Here an intricate panel announced The Western Union Co. and two profiles representing the East and West Coasts were connected by a telegraph cable.


Electricity sparks from the twisted telegraph cable connecting the East to the West, depicted by a Native American.

A creative innovation was included in the 23rd Street building.  On February 20, 1883 The Sun reported that it would be connected to the Broadway headquarters by pneumatic tubes.  "Within six months the pneumatic tubes are to be laid between the new up-town headquarters and the main offices at Dey street."  Their purpose was to "carry a large batch of dispatched.  One tube will be used for distributing and one for collecting messages."  Messages could cover the two-mile distance within two minutes.


Hardenberg included delicate, subtle Aesthetic Movement decorations like the sprouting plants carved into the second floor arch.
The ground floor space became home to the branch offices of the New York Herald newspaper.  The second floor housed the National Wood Mfg. Co., makers of parquet flooring and other architectural woodwork.   Offices in the upper floors filled with a stunning number of architectural firms.


photo by Irving Underhill from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The several architects were, most likely, attracted by the fact that the Architectural League installed its headquarters in the building.  It was here that the League's highly-anticipated annual exhibitions were staged.  On December 15, 1887, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported "At the Architectural League's rooms, No. 10 West Twenty-third-st., there was an exhibition yesterday of the forty-four entries for gold and silver medals to be exhibited at the League's annual exhibition, to be opened on December 19."

Not only did Henry J. Hardenbergh move his offices into the building which he had designed, but so did Berg & Clark, Walter C. Hunting, Charles L. Eidlitz, A. C. Jacobsen, William E. Young and Charles B. Gillespie. 

Th Crown Perfumery Co. was a much different type of tenant.   The stench of horse dung and other unpleasant odors on city streets, especially in hot months, prompted refined ladies to carry pierced silver vinaigrettes that held perfume-soaked pumice stones or smelling salts.   The Crown Perfumery Co. melded the two with its perfumed pocket salts.

The American University Magazine, May 1897 (copyright expired)

Elegant glass containers were sold within kid leather "purses."  The company's 1897 advertisements noted that their wholesale offices could be accessed by a "private elevator at 5th Ave."  

In 1901 Seth Low was elected Mayor of New York on the newly-formed Fusion ticket, defeating the Tammany Hall candidate.  He immediately launched a hiring campaign to replace the civil servants of the former corrupt administration.

On November 9 The Evening World reported "Already the Army of Fusion is busy seeking jobs for the men who worked hard for the success of the ticket.  Mayor-elect Seth Low has rented an entire floor at No. 10 West Twenty-third street...where his secretary, John C. Clarke, will open 'application headquarters' on Monday morning."

In the first years of the 20th century the publishing firm Revell Company called the building home, as did offices of The Roovers Manufacturing Co., machinery makers.



In May 1905 the architectural firm of John B. Snook's Sons remodeled the ground floor storefronts.  The renovations would last only seven years.  When the upscale Chicago-based silver manufacturer Lebolt & Company took the first and second floors in 1912 the show windows were updated by architect J. P. Whiskeman.  His plans, filed on August 16, estimated the cost at $2,000, or just over $52,000 today.


Lebolt & Co.'s showroom included astonishing light fixtures.  photo via chicagosilver.com

The upscale silver firm moved in just as the shopping district of the Ladies' Mile was migrating northward.  On June 10, 1916 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide commented on the plummeting property values in the Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street district.  "The building at 186 Fifth avenue, southwest corner of 23d street assessed at $620,000 in 1908, stands now at the assessed value of $220,000."  The store nevertheless remained at least through 1918.


Lebolt & Co. installed a three-faced corner clock above the ground floor.  J. P. Whiskeman's new storefronts can be seen in this 1914 detail.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

In 1919 the building became national headquarters for the Delta Upsilon fraternity.  It published its Delta Upsilon Quarterly here for several years.

The Boy Rangers of America, a precursor of the Boy Scouts of America's cub scouts program, was organized in 1913.  By 1923 its national headquarters was at No. 10 West 23rd Street.  Open to boys from 8 to 12 years old, it described itself in an advertisement that year as "An Indian Lore Organization" and said it offered a "most fascinating and developing program."  The organization would remain here at least through 1938.

As the neighborhood continued to change, so did the tenant list of No. 186 Fifth Avenue.  In 1927 the headquarters of the Lord's Day Alliance of the United States was here, a group determined to "make the modern Sunday conform with the old-time Sabbath," according to The Evening Post.

And when a boy scout named Peter Briglin wrote to Boys' Life magazine in December 1936 asking "Where can I get white quills, or duck feathers suitable for making a headdress?" the editor directed him to "Plume Sales & Trade Co., 10 West 23rd Street."

Other tenants throughout the 20th century included the Allied Brief Case Company in the 1950's and '60's; and Shake Records, The Viking Press, and the Pecos Valley Spice Company in the 1980's.



In 1993 the ground floor space that had once exhibited costly sterling silver bowls, trays and tea sets became home to Isaac Mor's Multi-Security Locksmith shop.  But eleven years later the Ladies' Mile neighborhood was being rediscovered by massive retailers like Bed, Bath and Beyond, Staples, and--most threatening to Mor--Home Depot.  He was understandably nervous, telling The New York Times journalist Glenn Collins in September 2004 "This will affect the whole neighborhood.  A lot of stores around here will go out of business."

Mor was right.  Mom-and-pop operations were nudged out by rising rents as trendy cafes and shops moved in alongside the behemoth retailers in what was now called the Flatiron District.   On February 25, 2007 The Times reported "five floor-through condos are planned" for No. 186 Fifth Avenue, and Leah Goldfarb, its sales director, said that two had already been sold.

In 2018 Bank of America leased the ground floor and part of the second as a full-service branch.  Plans were approved to redesign the ground floor storefronts at the time.

A rendering of the proposed storefronts was released in 2018 by Winick Realty Group.  via commercialobserver.com
Henry Hardenberg's striking Queen Anne style building is greatly overshadowed by the magnificent attention-grabbing Flatiron Building directly across the street.  It nevertheless deserves a pause to take in those glorious panels and overall design.

photographs by the author

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